FIU’s Panther LIFE provides opportunities for young adults with intellectual disabilities

Nicholas Espinosa, a Panther LIFE student, learns the ins and outs of working and keeping a job during a job shadowing opportunity at the Rec Center’s Tropical Smoothie Café.

Nicholas Espinosa, a Panther LIFE student, learns the ins and outs of working and keeping a job during a job shadowing opportunity at the Rec Center’s Tropical Smoothie Café.

Like many high school seniors, Nicholas Espinosa dreamed of getting a college education.

But for Espinosa and the estimated 75,000 other South Floridians living with cognitive disabilities, the opportunity to attend college seemed out of reach.  The best they could hope for was continuing to live with their parents and maybe find a part-time minimum wage job.

Historically, the odds are stacked against high school graduates with intellectual disabilities in Florida. Only 4 percent will ever enroll in continuing education and 16 percent will find jobs.

That was the impetus for FIU’s Panther LIFE (Learning is For Everyone), preparing 18-to 22-year-old young adults with intellectual disabilities for the work force. Housed within the School of Education and Human Development, Panther LIFE’s enrollment has tripled to 30 students in just five years, affording even more young adults with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to do more with their lives.

Espinosa was among the first to be accepted into the program, which allows young adults like him to attend college classes, live and work on campus, and develop the skills needed to live independently and make a career.

“I wanted to get an education so I can pay my own bills one day and learn about the outside world,” Espinosa said. “My parents aren’t going to be here one day and I want to be able to take care of myself.”

Espinosa has become a regular at FIU, having learned to use public transportation to shuttle him from home to campus. He’s taken classes and works at the Rec Center’s Tropical Smoothie Café under a Panther LIFE job-shadowing opportunity.

As his skills blossomed and Espinosa was ready to take on more responsibility for his day-to-day activities,

Nicholas Espinosa (center) got a taste of “the boring life” during his stay at an on-campus dorm.

Nicholas Espinosa (center) got a taste of “the boring life” during his stay at an on-campus dorm.

Panther LIFE’s immersive Summer Residential Program was the next step. For four weeks, Espinosa and his peers moved into a campus dorm room where they made their own schedules, cooked their own meals and washed their own laundry. Tackling these everyday chores gave Espinosa a taste of “the boring life,” but he says it prepared him to live on his own.

Indeed, one of the main components of the program teaches Panther LIFE students to use South Florida’s mass transit system to get to and from home, school and work. Espinosa was able to navigate the bus and rail network to reach the Miami Seaquarium where, as an intern, he helped manage social media for the attraction’s marketing department. The best part of the job? Getting close enough to the park’s dolphins where they were able to splash and squirt him with water.

It’s the latest step in a path that Espinosa and his parents hope will lead him to a career that will play to his skills and talents.

“We’re lucky,” said Janelle Espinosa, Nicholas’ mother. “I consider myself very lucky he’s getting an experience like this.”


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